Colombian elections show gains for get-tough presidential hopeful
BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) -- Results emerging Monday from weekend
congressional elections underscored the appeal of independent presidential
candidate Alvaro Uribe -- a harsh critic of leftist rebels -- and could help
propel him into Colombia's highest office in May.
Dozens of pro-Uribe candidates were elected to the congress on Sunday in
in which Colombia's two traditional parties, the Liberals and the Conservatives, lost
seats but remained the first and second largest political forces in the legislature.
The Uribe allies are believed to now hold more than a fourth of the seats
102-member senate and some in the 166-member House of Representatives, after
more than 10 million Colombians voted despite fears of violence.
"Uribe is the most important political phenomenon in years in Colombia.
was critical for the candidates he backed," said Rafael Pardo, a former defense
minister elected Sunday to the senate after aligning himself with Uribe last month.
Although the ruling Conservative Party lost ground, the government is calling
election a triumph of democracy over "terrorism" practiced by guerrillas and rival
right-wing paramilitary group battling U.S.-backed security forces in Colombia's
Rebels burned ballots in 15 towns, but fears of widespread sabotage by
Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, did not materialize amid a
security operation involving 150,000 troops and police.
The Conservative Party's president, Carlos Holguin, resigned on Monday,
fallout for a drop to about 10 percent of the seats in the congress, from 15 percent
in the last elections. The party's popularity has plummeted due to economic decline
and the unpopularity of peace policies during President Andres Pastrana's
government, which ends in August.
Pardo said Uribe's new base in the congress will help him counter claims
main opponent, Horacio Serpa of the Liberal Party that he would have difficulty
governing if elected.
Both Uribe and Serpa were claiming success Monday. But several longtime
politicians lost their seats, costing Serpa some of his support in the congress. The
Liberal party remained the largest force in the congress, however, with about 30
percent of the vote in each chamber.
Pollsters say Uribe's main appeal has been his rhetoric demanding a tougher
response toward the FARC, a group whose unrelenting violence has alienated many
Colombians. The latest poll, conducted late last month, gave him nearly 60 percent
support, compared to 24 percent for Serpa.
Anger about the rebels may also be reflected in gains claimed Monday by
Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, or AUC, the right-wing paramilitary group
waging a brutal counterinsurgency war against suspected rebel sympathizers.
In a message posted on the Internet, a top AUC commander, Salvatore Mancuso,
claimed his group had "greatly surpassed" its goal of placing sympathetic candidates
in 35 percent of the congress.
It was not possible to verify Mancuso's claim, which would give the outlawed
militia group an unprecedented foothold to pursue its agenda in Congress.
Candidates who received the group's support would have done so secretly, since
the AUC is an illegal organization.
The top vote-getter in the lower house of congress was hard-liner Jaime
retired general who angrily stepped down two years ago, saying government
restrictions had hamstrung the military in the war on the rebels.
The elections were not a simple right-wing sweep. The presence in the senate
former guerrilla leader Antonio Navarro Wolf, and left-leaning former Constitutional
Court president Carlos Gaviria could provide a counterbalance to hawks calling for
an all-out war on the guerrillas.
Copyright 2002 The Associated Press.